The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School

Boys rebelling because there is too little beer; teachers drowning in failed attempts to cut willow whips: in this rich and engaging book, David Turner paints an affectionately critical picture of the history of the public school system.

He recounts how, until the 1980s, the common entrance exam was a formality for those with the right family name – Churchill claimed that he was offered a place at Harrow despite writing nothing on his exam paper. He shows how boys from working-class backgrounds offered free or assisted places almost always fell back into obscurity, while less academically able boys from the aristocracy entered government. Social connections and family name mattered more than education, certainly up to the late 20th century.

Indeed, standards were so poor in public schools that in the 1960s the system was close to collapse, as state education offered better facilities and academic results. Only in the 1980s, with a catastrophic drop of 30 per cent in capital spending in state schools, did parents begin to send their children to private schools in their droves, allowing the sector to increase its spending per pupil by 91 per cent. Plus, the assisted places scheme meant that by 1997 one in seven children in private schools was educated at the government’s expense, boosting academic results and “decapitating” the state sector.

Looking at the contemporary state of our public schools, now heavily dependent on overseas students, Turner posits the possibility that the golden age of the private sector may well be about to end. Fees are at their highest; the middle classes priced out of a market catering only for the rich. Pupil numbers have fallen, except in the wealthier south east.

The creation of the Office for Fair Access, designed to ensure universities take pupils from poorer backgrounds, also poses a threat. But Turner reminds us that wealthy parents will always find a way to press home their advantage — private tutors and houses close to “good schools, for instance. The downfall of a private education system would not necessarily bring great equality.

Finally, Turner explores that most common criticism of the public school network, the dominance of old boys in positions of power. An old boy himself, he accepts this may be an inefficient system – “it confers a career advantage on people who are no more talented than the norm”, but he makes the point that perhaps the wealthy secure positions in law and the media, based not on schooling, but on an ability to undertake unpaid internships, or pupilage, often in London.

He makes a somewhat weak defence of this system when he argues that the biggest benefit of public school education is its contribution to human capital – the amount of knowledge offered to an economy by its workforce. He assumes that privately educated children have more academic knowledge and are therefore of more use to society. His example that private schools account for the bulk of A* grades in languages such as German fails to mention foreign travel for wealthier pupils, or the many bilingual pupils on roll, many of them from Germany.

Further, he makes the case that were children to leave their private schools for the state sector, the state system would be unable to cope. Indeed, one of the pressures on school places in the north of England has been down to the fall in private school rolls. It is a fair point, but it is not an argument for private education, rather for more investment and expansion of state provision.

Turner’s public school education perhaps blinds him to his own biases. His cringe-worthy description of a pasty as “an iconic snack of the working classes” undermines his defence of Chancellor George Osborne. Similarly, his assumptions about “easy” and “hard” subjects expose a lack of knowledge about the content of those subjects; he exposes the very prejudices that are in themselves a product of his own education. Nevertheless, this is a well written, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable book.